Since the rise of the nuclear power industry in the 1950s, radioactive waste has been a contentious subject in the United States, particularly highly radioactive waste resulting from nuclear power and defense. The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (Pub. L. 83-703, 68 Stat. 919) first established regulation around the disposal of radioactive waste. Later came the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act of 1978 (Pub. L. 95-605, 92 Stat. 3021), Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (Pub. L. 97-425, 96 Stat. 2201), and Low-level Radioactive Waste Policy Amendments Act of 1985 (Pub. L. 99-240, 99 Stat. 1842). These pieces of legislation outline the proper disposal and regulation of radioactive material, which is overseen by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
Radioactive waste is produced by multiple industries, including nuclear power generation, military defense, research, medicine, and mining. According to the EPA, there are five categories of radioactive waste in the United States, each with different disposal guidelines.
- High-level waste
- Low-level waste
- Uranium or thorium mill tailings
- Transuranic waste (transuranic refers to elements heavier than uranium)
- Technologically enhanced naturally-occurring radioactive material (TENORM)
I will provide a brief overview of high-level waste, low-level waste, and uranium mining and mill tailings, which make up most of the radioactive waste in the United States.
Material that can be fatal within short periods of direct exposure is considered high-level waste (HLW). It comes from commercial nuclear power sites and military defense research and development programs. Some of this material continues to be dangerously radioactive for 10,000 years or more (page 28). Most HLW in the U.S. is spent nuclear fuel from commercial power generation.
Commercial nuclear power plants use fuel rods in their process. When these spent fuel rods are removed from a nuclear reactor they are very hot and highly radioactive. To cool them down and block the radiation, the rods are submerged in large pools of water. After 7-10 years (page 29) of cooling, the spent fuel rods can be transferred to dry storage casks. These storage containers were developed in the 1970s and 80s when many spent fuel pools were reaching capacity at reactor sites across the country.
The final step for disposal of HLW would be burial in a geologic repository deep underground. However, there is currently no geologic repository for HLW in the United States, so most of this type of waste is stored at the site where it was produced. Today, there are approximately 80,000 metric tons of high-level waste stored at 57 operating reactor sites and 23 decommissioned sites.
Most of the waste that comes out of commercial nuclear power generation is considered low-level waste (LLW). The classification of LLW also includes contaminated materials such as clothing, rags, filters, and waste incidental to some medical equipment and research. As the EPA notes: “Much of this waste looks like common items such as paper, rags, plastic bags, protective clothing, cardboard, and packaging material.” The level of radioactivity of LLW ranges broadly from just above background levels to highly radioactive.
Under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, the NRC can delegate state regulatory authority to participating states, called agreement states. Agreement States manage the regulation of LLW disposal and mill tailings within their state, with the support and oversight of the NRC. There are currently 39 agreement states.
There are four sites in the U.S. currently accepting low-level waste. All are located in Agreement States.
- EnergySolutions Barnwell Operations, Barnwell, South Carolina
- S. Ecology, Richland, Washington
- EnergySolutions Clive Operations, Clive, Utah
- Waste Control Specialists, Andrews, Texas
In 2020, over one million cubic feet of radioactive waste was disposed of in these four sites. Most of the material went to Clive, Utah, while the site with the highest radioactivity is in Andrews County, Texas.
Uranium Mining and Mill Tailings
Uranium is the primary source of fuel for nuclear power generation and nuclear defense. Mining and the process of extracting uranium from the raw ore, called milling, produces radioactive waste. Material extracted from uranium mining sites can be dangerously radioactive, and, if not disposed of properly, the radioactive particles from mill waste may be blown by the wind to populated areas and contaminate water sources. Additionally, uranium decays to radium, which emits a harmful gas called radon. The Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act of 1978 (Pub. L. 95-604, 92 Stat. 3021) added uranium mill tailings to the list of byproduct material regulated by the NRC.
In 1995, the NRC updated uranium mill licensing guidelines, expanding the type of material uranium mills could receive beyond ore obtained from uranium mining. An NRC regulatory issuing summary in 2000 (RIS 00-023) made these updated guidelines even more flexible. A mill can apply for an amendment license to receive “alternate feed” in order to extract uranium from the feed and store the resulting waste in the mill’s impoundments – this feed can be anything from material resulting from rare earth extraction to waste from water treatment systems. The material received must be processed to produce uranium.
Once operations cease at a mill, the impoundments must be closed in a way that ensures the radioactivity level is controlled for at least 200 years, and there must be reasonable assurance that it can be controlled for 1,000 years. Alternatively, all waste must be removed from impoundments and the site decontaminated after closure. Today, most uranium mines and mills in the United States are decommissioned or undergoing decommissioning.
Uranium Mine Clean-Up Projects
Before 1978, much of the waste from mining was piled up outside of the mine shaft or even used as construction material. In mining towns such as Moab, UT and Grand Junction, CO, several structures were built using mine waste. Many of these abandoned uranium mines and contaminated structures are located on the Colorado Plateau in Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico, as well as Wyoming.
Since 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has overseen a project cleaning up the 523 abandoned mines and numerous contaminated buildings in the Navajo Nation. The project is funded by enforcement agreements and settlements with parties responsible for the abandoned mines. As of 2018, 46 priority mines have been assessed and 1,100 homes have been screened for radiation and uranium contamination, as well as a number of informational materials created such as Gamma Goat in… The Dangers of Uranium! The contamination by abandoned uranium mines on Navajo land was recently added to the Administrator’s Emphasis List of Superfund Sites targeted for immediate, intense action.
In 2014, the DOE submitted a report to congress on Defense-Related Uranium Mines (DRUM). The report identified 4,225 abandoned mines that operated between 1947 and 1970 and sold uranium to the Atomic Energy Commission (the NRC’s predecessor). Some of these mines have contaminated groundwater and surrounding areas. Roughly 85% of the mines surveyed by the DOE have not been cleaned up or reclaimed.
The DRUM project continues with the purpose of working with other agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management, Department of the Interior, and Environmental Protection Agency, to mitigate the hazards abandoned mines pose to the public.
Subscribe to In Custodia Legis – it’s free! – to receive interesting posts drawn from the Law Library of Congress’s vast collections and our staff’s expertise in U.S., foreign, and international law.